Congo braced for stormy election marred by violence

The self-styled 'Nelson Mandela of Congo' hopes to unseat president in poll, reports Daniel Howden from Kinshasa

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The Independent Online

Last night, as millions of Congolese braced themselves for a potentially stormy day at the polls, Richard Mbuwi was keeping the same vigil he has for the past 22 years. He is part of a volunteer human shield who camp outside the residence of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi.

"To those in power he is an animal to slaughter," said the 49-year-old. "For us he is the hope for Congo."

The nearly-man of Congolese politics has worried foreign diplomats by declaring himself president before a vote has been cast and calling on his supporters to break open the prisons. He has failed to convince financial backers and is dogged by rumours of ill-health. But for his fervent supporters, today's election in the Democratic Republic of Congo is an appointment with history for the 78-year-old who styles himself as "Congo's Nelson Mandela". And it comes after two days of violent unrest in the capital, Kinshasa, that has underlined how much Mr Tshisekedi's popular appeal disturbs the current regime.

The campaign was meant to come to a close with a series of mass rallies by leading candidates – including a stadium address by the notoriously microphone-shy incumbent, Joseph Kabila. But from early on Saturday, things went bloodily wrong. With tens of thousands of people converging on the centre of the mega-city for rival gatherings to be staged only a few hundred metres apart, the order was given by police to cancel all events. Clashes had already erupted between loyalists of the Tshisekedi UDPS party and those of the ruling PPRD.

At the airport, thousands more opposition supporters poured out of slums to welcome back "Tshi-Tshi" from the campaign trail. Spooked by what some witnesses claim was a gunshot but others insist was a stone thrown at a vehicle of the Republican Guard, a heavily armed police unit, they replied with live rounds into the crowds.

The armoured convoy – which had gone to meet President Kabila only to find he had arrived at an alternative airport – made its way back into the city firing volleys of tear gas and live rounds into neighbourhoods along the route.

The street battle that ensued pitted barefoot boys with stones against modern armoured cars mounted with high-calibre weapons and cannons that fired tear gas canisters deep into slum neighbourhoods. A 70-year-old woman walking home with her shopping was hit five times and a pregnant 20-year-old in another area was hit in the foot.

After Mr Tshisekedi vowed to rally his supporters despite the ban, police blocked him at the airport, where he was held for eight hours despite UN attempts to negotiate his exit.

The Independent was shown one dead body along the airport road by an enraged crowd who were tearing down Kabila election posters. Soon after, police arrived in force, with some firing automatic weapons at random into the warren of lanes at the roadside.

At least nine deaths have been confirmed and 76 were wounded in the chaos that followed, according to Human Rights Watch. At dusk on Saturday, crowds were seen walking with their hands on their heads in mourning for those killed.

Yesterday morning, at Mr Tshisekedi's dilapidated residence on Tenth Street in one of Kinshasa's oldest neighbourhoods, the first Congolese to qualify as a lawyer under Belgian colonial rule declared that time was up for the "internationally appointed dictator" Mr Kabila.

The man who boycotted DRC's historic first election five years ago – saying it was rigged – and has waited much of his life to run for president, demanded that the UN's American head of mission, Roger Meece, be replaced, saying he had failed to be "impartial".

"If Kabila wins this election honestly I will accept," said Mr Tshisekedi. "But if we know that the process is not honest we will call on the people to take responsibility... I will preach to them not to be afraid." As he spoke, his loyalists gathered at the gate to whoop and holler and legions of heavily armed police assembled nearby to prevent any late efforts to stage a rally.

International concerns over Mr Tshisekedi's anti-Western grandstanding have done nothing to dilute his support. On the eve of voting Mr Mbuwi was settled in for another night shift: "I've been coming here as a bachelor, as a married man and now as a father. I volunteer because we have the same idea: to make a better country."

From bad to even worse: life in the DRC

The election banners hung on Kinshasa's 30th June Boulevard show pictures of "yesterday", "today" and "tomorrow".

The triptychs of boats and trains show a progression from a ruined past to a flawed present and finally a gleaming future. But older voters in the Democratic Republic of Congo know this to be a lie.

The GDP per capita shows that the Congolese are surviving on less than they were before independence, real incomes are lower now than they were in 1960. When the UN unveiled its human development index this month, the Democratic Republic of Congo found itself officially rated as the worst place in the world to live.

It's the only nation set to miss every one of the targets set by the international community to measure progress on eradicating chronic poverty – the Millennium Development Goals.

It's a country where appaling economic realities are obscured by horrific human rights abuses. Unemployment runs at 97 per cent according to government figures.

Congolese businessman and political analyst Al Gitenge says that things are just as bad as they were under the notorious dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

"There is no economic theory in the world that shows you how to manage three per cent employment," he says.

As tough as life undoubtedly is in the mega-city, locals admit that Kinshasa is a "bubble" and that development in the country's vast interior is non-existent.

The less than a thousand kilometres of paved roads all end beyond the two provinces neighbouring the capital.